Academies

Transparency calls over secret £200m academy trust handouts

Investigation into extra cash available to trusts finds half not open to applications, and one has no public presence at all

Investigation into extra cash available to trusts finds half not open to applications, and one has no public presence at all

17 Jun 2024, 5:00

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Sector leaders want more transparency around government academy handouts after Schools Week found that almost £200 million has been distributed through a secret fund since 2016.

Our analysis has established eight different additional Department for Education funding streams that new or growing trusts have access to (click here for full list).

More than £70 million was paid out to trusts in the past year alone, but half of them are not open to applications. 

A whopping 46 per cent of that was handed out through the strategic school improvement capital budget (SSICB). 

Unlike the other schemes, there is no published guidance explaining what it is or who can access the money. Instead, regional directors decide which trusts should get the cash.

‘Shoddy’ lack of transparency

The Association of School and College Leaders funding specialist Julia Harnden said the lack of guidance was “pretty shoddy”. 

Julia Harnden
Julia Harnden

“[The SSICB] really should be fully transparent so that everyone understands the eligibility and criteria,” she added.

Google searches throw up mentions of the SSICB in DfE advisory board minutes, school and construction company press releases and in a couple of answers to Parliamentary questions.

A post on the website of design specialists Gate and Bar describes SSICB as “a fairly unknown but substantial funding stream”. There is also a brief mention of the fund in the DfE’s annual accounts.

Papers obtained following Freedom of Information requests show £195 million has been allocated to trusts through the fund since its launch eight years ago. Almost 70 per cent (£133 million) has been issued since 2021. 

The DfE said the fund is used to secure sponsoring trusts “where the condition or suitability of the premises of a failing school is a significant barrier” to agreeing the match. 

To be eligible, the school must have an ‘inadequate’ – or at least two consecutive ‘requires improvement’ – judgments from Ofsted, or be part of a “strategically critical transfer”, the government said.

“To demonstrate condition and suitability, the prospective trust must commission a condition report from an independent surveyor or consultancy following procurement guidance and prepare a bid for capital funding, substantiated by independent surveys and evidence.”

‘No application process’

It has “no thresholds or limits on award values as it is based on need” and “does not have an application process”. Instead, officials work directly with eligible trusts. 

Leora Cruddas

Confederation of School Trusts chief Leora Cruddas said trusts can “find themselves faced with a difficult decision between taking on a school in need and exposing their existing” academies to “substantial financial risk” due to long-term property problems.

But she added: “We have supported the department’s steps to improve the transparency and consistency of funding decisions, and it would be good to ensure that funds like the strategic schools improvement capital budget are more widely known about so the potential benefit to pupils is maximised.”

Our analysis of the completed SSICB projects suggests larger trusts benefited most. On average, those in receipt of the cash ran 12 schools each.

But this could be because they have grown, or they may have more capacity to take on the most challenging schools.

However, school business leader Hilary Goldsmith argued that it “favours” the bigger MATs as they have “already got surveyors on standby” and greater knowledge of the sponsorship process. It “discourages the smaller trusts from taking on struggling schools”, she noted. 

Astrea Academy Trust received its last payment for a £9 million grant at Astrea Academy Woodfields last year. Previously called Balby Carr, the school was part of the Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) until it was re-brokered following the MAT’s announcement in 2017 it would close. 

WCAT was in an “extremely vulnerable position” because of “inadequate governance, leadership and overall financial management”.

Condemned blocks and wobbly walls

An Astrea spokesperson said the funds went towards work that “included reconfiguring the site, replacing the condemned science classrooms for safety reasons, a new maths block, a new hall, new dance studios, new toilet facilities and new offices”. 

Delta Academies Trust received £485,000 in 2018 as it took on two other WCAT academies. It used the money, among other things, to fix an unstable wall and roof leaks that had “run down the inside of the wall and… raised the parquet flooring” in one of the schools. 

Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT) has received more than £19.5 million for nine different schools, six of which were part of WCAT. 

A spokesperson explained: “OGAT has always come forward to take on challenging schools that have struggled for years so that children and young people in their communities can get a great education.

“The funding we received allowed us to address serious health and safety issues that we inherited at all nine schools which met the criteria for SSICB.”

Meanwhile in the South West, Truro and Penwith Academy Trust received almost £870,000 for work across three schools that were part of the Adventure Learning Academy Trust (ALAT) . 

This came after allegations of false claims for building and maintenance grants were levelled at ALAT and its sister chain, Bright Tribe, following a BBC Panorama investigation.  

Truro and Penwith CEO Dr Jennifer Blunden stated that water was leaking onto schoolwork and causing damp problems at two of the sites. 

Academy-only funds

But Harnden believes it is a “sorry state of affairs” when such cash is being handed out secretly amid a wider “underinvestment in capital funding that has left many schools unable to afford the cost of maintaining their premises”.

Dr Jennifer Blunden

The DfE said it does not publicly release guidance on the SSICB because it is not open to universal application.

The SSICB is one of the eight funding streams or grants that “apply specifically to academy trusts and the work of the DfE on school system structural reform and intervention”. 

The only other one with no published guidance online is the academy transfer fund, which is provided in cases when an academy switches from one trust to another due to intervention. 

It is not open to applications either, but spending figures are published online.

The DfE’s environmental improvement grant also does not have an application process. It is given to schools “requiring higher levels of intervention” to support their green credentials and is intended for “light refurbishment works” in “pupil learning spaces” and “to make a visual statement that the ‘old school’ has become an academy”.

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